Shawn Sheng, Vice President, Handset Product and Technology Management at Huawei, has a unique ringside view of the future of smartphone tech. Shawn was in Dubai recently, where I had an few moments to chat with him. Among other things, Shawn spoke on the maturing of AI, Huawei’s smartphone segregation strategy and whether a Kirin 980 chipset could one day find a place on other vendor devices.
The Kirin 970 AI chipset was all about understanding the consumer’s behaviour and optimizing the system to be more efficient. How does the Kirin 980 change things?
Huawei has flagship high performance chipset as also the mid-level chipset. If you take the Kirin 970 chipset, we took three years from the study to the final business model. For the 980, the chipset has just come back from the factory and we used about 3 years and two months to ready it for the smartphone. We have invested a lot of time and money, and for the Kirin 980, we adopted the newest 7nm process, and that means we can provide a much more powerful powerful computing capability with very very less power consumption. We also use the latest CUP, the XA76 and also a new GPU. The CPU has an eight-core architecture, with two Cortex-A76 2.6GHz super bit core for heavy demanding tasks, two Cortex-A76 1.92GHz bit cores for day-to-day tasks and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A55 efficiency cores for lighter workload. That means we can use different cores for different applications. For example if we are playing a game, we use the super bit core.
Meaning the A76 is specific to more intensive applications…
Yes, it’s for demanding tasks and the frame rate is very stable. And if we use say social application, we just use bit core, that’s enough. So by segregating tasks, we can ensure good performance with lower power consumption. We also provide incredibly fast download speeds, we provide Cat.21, with download speed is 1.4Gbps speed. Also, we have the fasted SDRAM interface, the Kirin 980 is the first chip to support 2,133MHz LPDDR4X RAM. Optimized speeds and performance, that’s very important. Another key highlight is Dual NPU on the 980, last year we provided the one NPU on the Kirin 970 chipset. At Huawei, our AI strategy is that we want to focus on Artificial Intelligence on-the-device, while some companies emphasize AI on-the-cloud. I think on-the-device AI is more safer, since your data is stored on your physical phone. Also there is the time factor, we process all the AI in real-time on your local phone. For example, when you take a picture, the smartphone will achieve the object recognition and also face recognition in an optimal time frame, which is very important.
At IFA 2018, Mr Richard Yu stressed on the fact that the Kirin 980 was all about more performance and better efficiency. Flex-scheduling technology is something that was one of the key points touched upon…
Speaking about flex-scheduling, the Kirin 980 has a different core structure that is utilized according to the requirement or application. That means we can adjust the resource, especially the hardware resource, for instance the CPU resource as also the memory resource. That means we should guarantee all the performance and all the time latency for the different applications. Because we provide more powerful computing capability, that means we can achieve far more productivity than before. For example, take the Dual NPU on the Kirin 980. With the one NPU, we achieved object recognition for still pictures. But with Dual NPU, we can process in-time for video, the moment we take the video, we can achieve facial recognition and also in-time object recognition. That’s means we can separate different objects, realize facial structures, and then we can make a good effect adjustment, which is a big improvement over the Kirin 970.
With the Kirin 980, would you say Huawei is reaching out to new target audiences, for instance, the gaming community?
In the future the gaming community will be key. Because today, the smartphone’s scope has gone far beyond making a call. The smartphone is not a phone anymore, I think it has become a mathematical processing terminal. So I think in the future, the gaming and video will more and more popular. At Huawei, we have already announced our GPU Turbo technology which will help provide more stable gaming performance, more stable firm rates and better solution of heat issues. So on the Kirin 980, I think we will continue with that focus, and have a new generation of GPU technology combined with the powerful hardware chipset. Also we have lots of collaborations with famous gaming providers. For example we have lots of famous games in China and all over the world, which we will be collaborating with. You know, some games also need support from the chipset side, for they also want good performance for their games, but they can’t achieve the optimal results without support from the hardware vendor. Based on the 980, we can work together with top gaming companies to optimize game performance and guarantee good gaming performance based on our chipset.
Huawei has used artificial intelligence so that devices like the P20 Pro can learn its user’s habits and adapt. How do you see AI becoming even further integrated into smartphone technology?
The Kirin 970 was the first Ai chipset that we introduced, but in fact I think AI is just in the beginning stages, and there is a real gap to catch the real human intelligence. Sometimes I say that AI is just like a baby. The baby knows something, but the baby can’t write judgement or the baby still needs somebody to have a perspective. But I think where the Artificial Intelligence chain leads is very clear. I think the natural communication, for instance the voice, must be the next milestone. Today, we have found and try some solutions, but I don’t think they are clever enough, it’s just that speech follows certain rules. I think in 3 years, we still need some time to achieve real AI. But if we want to achieve this, we need some basic requirement. For example, we need the smartphone to realize the real world in real-time. Because if the smartphone don’t know where you are, what’s the time and what’s your correct position, the smartphone doesn’t know how to make the judgement. So maybe in the future, we’ll need the smartphone to watch you in real-time, what we call always-on. And if we need the smartphone to achieve always-on, that means you need the CPU to use very very less power consumption. Also, we need the camera component to support this. So that’s we continue to invest in the NPU, to find more and more technology to provide the more powerful computing capability. But first you need to find the right technology to ensure less power consumption. I think that’s a key point for AI in the future. I think our new 7nm process is a key step in that direction.
Every brand is getting on the AI bandwagon. What timeframe do you see for AI to mature and really make a difference?
An AI expert said that you still need a long time, that you need 10 years to achieve real human intelligence. But for us, I think we need 3 years or 5 years. Because we’ve already seen last year Huawei beating the AI trend in the industry, and also I think AI in a smartphone is really an important milestone. So I think the dawn of AI is coming fast, because so many companies are investing in AI, meaning new limits will be crossed in AI.
Away from factors like megapixels on phones and display specs, do you foresee an immediate future where Artificial Intelligence will be a key differentiator while setting aside a smartphone?
Huawei is leading the AI race, and all the others are following us. The AI trend is really important, not only on the smartphone, but also for other applications like automobiles.
How do you find see Huawei balancing premium flagship devices like the Mate series and mid-range devices like the Nova3 which are powerful in their own way?
Globally, the smartphone market is very huge and segmented. We need to make more and more good products that are flagships, so that’s why every year with the Mate Series we’ll use the latest chipset. But we can also provide some middle range products because lot of countries need such products. For example, in South East Asia and Latin America, the Nova may be the flagship in that country. So I think it is good for us to provide the different segments for different countries. But the key requirement is that we provide the best performance and good experience for the consumer. Mate series is our flagship, and in our Mate series, we’ll use the latest technologies, newest chipsets, and the power and performance will be very important. Some business use-cases will be very important for the Mate Series. But for the P series, we’ll focus on the design and the camera, that’s why we first incorporated the Leica system on the P Series, with the P9. So want to position the P series to the style conscious. They are young and have place importance on the design and the color.
For the Nova series, say the Nova3, we have carried the Kirin 970 chipset. With the mid-range Nova series, we’re focusing on the young students and a female demographic, so we provide very colorful designs, and the phones are very beautiful. So yes, we do have a very definitive segregation of our devices.
Do you foresee a stage in the future where the Kirin chipset might be made available to outside vendors?
Today, that’s not our strategy. We haven’t positioned the chipset department as our core business target, and the target of the chipset is just to make our smartphones more powerful, differentiate it and we could control the core technology with our on chipset. So that’s our target. So today, we don’t have the plan to provide the chipset to other vendors.